MARJAH, Afghanistan – The young Marine had a simple question for the farmer with the white beard: Have you seen any Taliban today?
The answer came within seconds — from insurgents hiding nearby who ended the conversation with bursts of automatic rifle fire that sent deadly rounds cracking overhead.
It was a telling coincidence — and the start of yet another gunbattle in Marjah, the southern poppy-producing hub which U.S. forces wrested from Taliban control in February to restore government rule.
Eight months on, the Taliban are still here in force, waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.
As U.S. involvement in the war enters its 10th year, the failure to pacify this town raises questions about the effectiveness of America's overall strategy. Similarly crucial operations are now under way in neighboring Kandahar province, the Taliban's birthplace.
There are signs the situation in Marjah is beginning to improve, but "it's still a very tough fight," said Capt. Chuck Anklam, whose Marine company has lost three men since arriving in July. "We're in firefights all over, every day."
"There's no area that's void of enemy. But there's no area void of Marines and (Afghan forces) either," said Anklam, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "It's a constant presence both sides are trying to exert."
That day, militants in his zone of operations alone had attacked Marines in four separate locations by mid-afternoon.
The February assault on Marjah was the first major offensive since President Barack Obama ordered the 30,000-troop surge to Afghanistan and the biggest joint NATO-Afghan operation since the war began in 2001.
Since then, Marjah has become a microcosm of the war itself — and a metaphor for an insurgency that has spread nationwide.
On Oct. 7, 2001, the Bush administration launched a withering bombing campaign that forced the Taliban from power weeks later. But what looked like quick victory turned out to be the start of one of the longest wars in U.S. history.
Similarly, the end of Taliban control in Marjah has sown the seeds of an entrenched guerrilla war that has tied down at least two U.S. Marine battalions and hordes of Afghan police and army troops.
The result, so far at least: Residents say the town is more insecure than ever.
"There was peace here before you came," farmer Khari Badar told one Marine patrol that recently visited his home. "Today, there is only fighting."
Marines say the Taliban can no longer move freely through the town with fighters and weapons. But the militants are still doing so clandestinely — so much so, that "we have areas where every time we go in, we know we're going to become engaged" in fighting, Anklam said.
On their way to Badar's home, Marines snatched cell phones from suspicious men believed to have been spotting for insurgents.
"The presence is that consistent and that heavy of enemy," Anklam said. "But there's no area that we allow the Taliban to say they can claim ownership over."
Marjah always had a long way to go, even before the Taliban took it over. More than 50,000 people are still thought to live here, but it's more a vast patchwork of fields and dried mud homes than a town. There's no electricity, running water or paved roads.
The coalition has succeeded in setting up a nascent government in the town's district center. But the local officials' connection to the people they govern is thin. The most visible signs of authority today are sandbagged police checkpoints that frequently come under attack.
Taliban militants have sown fear into the heart of the population in a bid to undermine the U.S.-led effort, warning people to stay clear of American and Afghan government projects.
Markets have come back to life in some parts of town, including the biggest one in northern Marjah. But the only one in Anklam's 18-square-mile (47-square-kilometer) zone closed a few weeks ago after shopkeepers succumbed to Taliban threats.
Anklam has helped oversee the opening of three government schools. Attendance at one of them rose recently to a high of 18, then plummeted a few days later to zero because parents were either too terrified of the Taliban or the security situation to let their children attend. Other schools have fared better — one in central Marjah has so many kids that officials have had to find tents to accommodate them all.
Coalition forces are also trying to win over the population by organizing the delivery of solar panels to businessmen, and refurbishing shops, wells and mosques, Anklam said. But residents are weary: One Marine simply trying to give away a lollipop to children at a checkpoint tried three times before finding one who would take it.
"It's hearts and minds versus fear and intimidation," said Marine Lance Cpl. Chuck Martin, 24, of Middletown, Rhode Island, referring to the Marines' attempt to gain the backing people terrified of Taliban threats. "And right now, fear and intimidation are winning."
Anklam said the Taliban enjoy "the tacit support of probably the vast majority of the population," but said they had known little other rule for years and were still too scared to stand up to them. He said several dismembered bodies, apparently of suspected coalition sympathizers, had been found over the last few months in the town's canals.
With Marine and Afghan forces present across the town, "people are starting to realize their government has a vested interest that's not going to disappear," Anklam said. The Taliban, by contrast, "have nothing to offer the people. When people are sick or injured, they come to us."
When the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines arrived two months ago, most people were too terrified of Taliban reprisals even to speak to U.S. troops during the day, Anklam said. Now, Marines routinely talk to shop owners and farmers in their homes.
"Most of them still won't tell us anything yet about the enemy's activity," he said. "But slowly, it's starting to happen."
Indeed, the white-bearded farmer whom Marines asked about the Taliban presence said he'd seen several fighters moving through the fields around his home during another gunfight — an honest and rare response troops often don't get even when they visit a home from which insurgents were just shooting, Martin said.
The old man also did something else that that was novel for Martin's platoon: He waved the Americans and their Afghan counterparts inside his home when the shooting started.
While the family hid inside, Marines climbed onto his roof and took cover behind a crumbling wall, firing a barrage of bullets toward insurgents a few hundred yards (meters) away. One Navy corpsman stepped in for an Afghan soldier — who was spraying bursts of fire aimlessly straight up into the sky — and began taking studied single shots instead.
Anklam has spread the Marines of Echo company as much as possible. The squads are now based at 13 small outposts — twice as many as in July. As a result, Marines say that although firefights occur daily, violence has decreased overall.
Maj. Dallas Shah, the 2/9 Marines' 42-year-old operations commander from Fairfax, Virginia, confirmed that assessment, but said firefights were on the rise in another company's part of Marjah to the north.
"As you lock down one area," Shaw said, "you have to accept that they're going to move into another area."